Breathing in polluted air may send soot far beyond a pregnant woman’s lungs, all the way to the womb surrounding her developing baby.
Samples of placenta collected after women in Belgium gave birth revealed soot, or black carbon, embedded within the tissue on the side that faces the baby, researchers report online September 17 in Nature Communications. The amount of black carbon in the placenta correlated with a woman’s air pollution exposure, estimated based on emissions of black carbon near her home.
“There’s no doubt that air pollution harms a developing baby,” says Amy Kalkbrenner, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee who was not involved in the new work. Mothers who encounter air pollution regularly may have babies born prematurely or with low birth weight (
These developmental problems have been tied to an inflammatory response to air pollution in a mother’s body, including inflammation within the uterus. But the new study, Kalkbrenner says, suggests that “air pollution itself is getting into the developing baby.”
The study looked particularly at black carbon, a pollutant emitted in the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel and coal. Researchers in Belgium at Hasselt University in Diepenbeek and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven used femtosecond pulsed laser illumination to test the tissue for soot.
The study suggests it might be possible to test for a person’s exposure to pollution from tissue samples or even blood, she says. Currently, scientists primarily estimate pollution exposure based on where a person lives, which can leave out other sources such as those encountered at work.